The Rafah Crossing + the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access

Egypt formally reopened the Rafah crossing today.

Journalists on the scene report that the numbers of Palestinians crossing were fewer than anticipated — apparently partly because of suspicions based on long experience that things might not work out as expected, and partly because of a shortage of money among many in Gaza.

It was one of the top stories on the international agenda today.

The Egyptian decision to reopen the Rafah Crossing appears to be unilateral – though carried out after considerable behind-the-scenes consultations.

By all indications negotiations are still continuing.

Israeli and Palestinian analysts suggest that the Egyptian move appears to be a reward to Hamas in exchange for the essential concessions and compromise that allowed agreement on reconciliation between it and Fatah, the two largest Palestinian movements who have been feuding as each controls a different part of the occupied Palestinian territory.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said in Washington last week with surprising equanimity that the American government was confident that Egypt could handle the security situation at Rafah…

The earlier regime at the Rafah crossing was established in the wake of Israel’s unilateral 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza.

The 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access which technically prevailed at the Rafah border crossing between Rafah and Egypt until today was negotiated over several months with considerable difficulty, and was only be brought to conclusion after the personal intervention of then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an all-night marathon session, on her birthday, 15 November.   It was intended to govern Israel’s immediate relationship to Gaza – which Israel argued was no longer occupied.

Within ten days, the EU managed to put together and deploy the EUBAM border-monitoring mission, and a liaison Office was set up, where EU observers worked together with Israeli and Palestinian Authority personnel.

In addition, Israeli security officials monitored the situation at Rafah in real time by live transmission of video surveillance, and by on-line computer transmissions of all the ID card numbers of the people who were crossing in either direction, Berger said.

One aspect of the Agreement that was constantly violated was the provision that “the passages will operate continuously”.

But, as it happened, the Agreement on Movement and Access was barely implemented, and for a very limited time only.

If Israel told the EUBAM observers to stay home, for example, for security reasons, the Rafah crossing would have to be closed.

The EU Representative to the Palestinian Authority, Christian Berger, explained in an interview in his office in East Jerusalem yesterday that it was originally supposed to cover both people and goods: “the original Agreement of 2005 foresaw that exports could take place right away, and if I remember one truck or two trucks were actually exported in December 2005 to Cairo. If I’m not mistaken, it was children’s toys. And then, nothing much happened. Imports were a different story: imports from the beginning had to come via Kerem Shalom [the Agreement did forsee capacity-building for handling imports direct at Rafah, after a period of one year] … However, during the period of one year, it was foreseen that with the help of the European Union but also with the help of the Israeli customs officials, Palestinian officials would be trained so they could [eventually] handle the imports themselves directly from Egypt. And at the end of that one-year period, an assessment would have been done, to find out whether the capacity was there for handling the imports. There was also a reference in the agreement for cars to be checked – traffic of private cars. Both things never happened – not at all, no. So, imports didn’t happen, and the training didn’t happen, and also the training and the capacity-building for cars didn’t happen”.

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U.S. withdraws visas — again — that were issued to three Fulbright scholars from Gaza

Last-minute Israeli information — that still apparently needs to be rechecked, a U.S. State Department official feels — has resulted in the U.S. withdrawing, AGAIN, visas issued to three Gazan students who were awarded Fulbright scholarships for study in America this year.

This news was broken by the New York Times Deputy Foreign Editor, who also happens to be the Jerusalem correspondent, Ethan Bronner, who wrote it better than I can, at this point:

“The three were part of a group of seven Fulbright winners whose grants were first withdrawn at the end of May when the State Department feared it would be unable to get them out of Gaza because of Israel’s closing of the coastal strip, which the Israelis say is aimed at isolating the Hamas leadership there. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heard about the withdrawals, she declared Fulbright grants to be an important part of American foreign policy and the scholarships were reinstated. The students needed to undergo individual Israeli security checks in order to leave Gaza and travel first to the American Consulate in Jerusalem for a visa interview and then to fly out. Four of the seven were cleared but three were told by Israel that they were security risks and could not enter the country. Skeptical American officials asked for details but said they only got broad accusations of links to Hamas; the officials still wanted to offer the grants. The consulate brought from Washington high-priced mobile fingerprinting equipment and sent several officials to the Israel-Gaza border to interview the three Palestinians on July 10. Three weeks later, on July 30, all three were informed that they had cleared the security screening and were granted their visas. Two days later, the visas were revoked although not before Israel allowed one of the grantees, Fidaa Abed, to leave Gaza to fly to Washington unaware of his changed status. He was informed at the airport that his visa was no longer valid, flown back to Amman, Jordan, and instructed to return to Gaza. He remains in Amman. On Monday, the American Consulate in Jerusalem sent letters to Mr. Abed and the two other grantees still in Gaza saying ‘information has come to light that you may be inadmissible to the United States’, and therefore their visas were being revoked … A senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Ms. Rice was very unhappy about how these cases had been handled and that a thorough review had been ordered to prevent a recurrence. The official added that the latest information about the three Palestinians was enough to give pause but that’“we really have to scrub it and are now going to take a good look to see if it holds’. Israeli officials, who had insisted that the three posed a risk, expressed satisfaction that their message had gotten through. A senior Israeli official said that after the United States had granted the visas, ‘the process of Israeli-American contacts on the matter did not cease, and more specific information was provided’.”

This NYTimes report can be read in full here .

Now Rice says talks will resume, but no time given

Our speculation is, apparently, scooped. Or, is this just spin?

News reports just in say that Rice announced at a joint press conference in Jerusalem with the Israeli Foreign Minister: ” ‘I’ve been informed by the parties that they intend to resume the negotiations and that they are in contact with one another as to how to bring this about’, Rice said told a joint press conference in Jerusalem with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni … Rice gave no timeframe for a resumption of the talks but said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had not conditioned the talks on reaching a cease-fire in Gaza. Rice said the Palestinian president would like to see an end to violence, but added: ‘This is not a condition’.”

If true, this is a major cave-in from the PA side.

This breaking news update is published here.

However, taking a second look at this, there is not too much really different — the parties intend to resume negotiations. But there is no time given. The one new element is Rice saying that she has been informed that the parties “are in contact with one another” to discuss how to bring this about.

LATEST UPDATE: The AP is reporting from Ramallah that “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday said he would resume peace talks with Israel, backing off a threat to boycott negotiations until Israel reaches a truce with Hamas militants in Gaza. ‘The peace process is a strategic choice and we have the intention of resuming the peace process’, he said in a statement. He did not say when talks would restart, but visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Jerusalem that a US general overseeing implementation of ‘the road map’ peace plan would hold his first joint meeting with Israelis and Palestinians next week. [n.b., that would be Lt. Gen Fraser] Abbas suspended talks earlier this week to protest Israel’s military crackdown in Gaza. Earlier Wednesday, he said he would not resume talks until a truce was reached”. This AP report is published in the JPOST here .

This would have to be called, at the very least, an extremely gracious concession on the part of Abbas, if it is not a major cave-in. It may cost him dearly.

VERY LATEST UPDATE: AP has reported this evening that “Abbas backed down after Rice called him in alarm just before an afternoon press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, where Rice planned to announce an agreement reached that morning to revive talks”.  This AP revelation is  here .

Israel, meanwhile, has reportedly also allowed another 70 trucks (“about”) loaded with humanitarian supplies to deliver their contents to Gaza today (Wednesday). The Jerusalem Post says that the trucks were “laden with food, medicine and humanitarian equipment”, and it added that, on top of that, “25 Gazans made the trip into Israel in order to receive medical attention”. This is major movement, after many weeks of blockade.

LATE UPDATE: The IDF spokeman has announced the contents of “about” 69 truckloads of goods that were allowed into Gaza today, as follows:
63 trucks through Sufa Crossing containing:
– Fruit
– Sugar
– Humus (chickpeas)
– Flour
– Coffee
– Baby Formula
– Oxygen Masks
6 trucks through Kerem Shalom crossing containing:
– Oil
– Flour
– Beans
– Tomato sauce